On Wednesday night, the game-changing big man may or may not have played his last game in the District in Dallas’s 132-123 loss to the Wizards. But the Capital One Arena crowd reacted with reverence similar to what was shown at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Monday night, or at Staples Center in Los Angeles last week or at Spectrum Center in Charlotte during the All-Star Game last month.
It has been a long and sweet and odd precautionary goodbye, but it’s appropriate. Nowitzki shouldn’t be allowed to slip away as quietly as Tim Duncan did three years ago. He deserves to know — and feel — just how much his 21-year career has meant to the sport.
His accomplishments and impact shouldn’t be overlooked. During this wave of superstar goodbyes, it can be easy to minimize the humble German 7-footer because he is competing with the dominance of Duncan, the flash of Kobe Bryant and the charisma of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade. But there’s no doubt that Nowitzki carved out a special place in one of basketball’s most fascinating eras. Sandwiched between Michael Jordan’s (second) retirement and LeBron James’s ascension to the throne, Nowitzki managed to create his own legend.
He is the greatest player in NBA history to come to the league directly from overseas. Call him the league’s best international player, and he will scoff because he wants to respect pioneers such as Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc. He won’t even accept the “best German” title because of his respect for Detlef Schrempf. And he refuses to eliminate international players, such as Hakeem Olajuwon, who played here in college before going to the NBA.
“You will never hear me say that,” Nowitzki said during All-Star Weekend when asked about his international “GOAT” candidacy. “The people who paved the way for me, I will always consider them greater. If you say that I helped advance the game when my time came, then I will consider that enough of an honor. But I’m not going to call myself anything.”
If he were the cocky type, Nowitzki would have plenty of room to be boastful. He can be low-key, but his influence shouldn’t be understated. When the Dallas Mavericks acquired him in a draft-night trade in 1998, international stars were mostly role players when they came to the NBA. The overwhelming majority of them were European, and the league coveted their shooting but held preconceived notions that they couldn’t play defense, possessed limited athleticism and were best utilized in small doses. Teams were leery about investing too much in international scouting.
Twenty-one years later, the NBA is a truly global league. International scouting is a must. The 30 teams build their rosters with very few of the old biases. And Nowitzki has been the central figure in this revolution. For 17 straight years, from 1999 to 2016, he averaged at least 17 points per game. That stretch included 12 consecutive years in which he averaged more than 21 points. He was the Mavericks’ franchise player for nearly two decades, and the organization rose from laughingstock to perennial contender.
At the start of Nowitzki’s third year in the NBA in 2000, the Mavericks had gone 10 seasons without a playoff appearance. They made the postseason 15 of the next 16 years. They went to the NBA Finals in 2006 and won the title in 2011. Nowitzki was the league MVP in 2007 and the Finals MVP in 2011. And he did it all while brandishing a style that mixed great shooting and exceptional mobility. His one-legged fadeaway jumper became one of the most unstoppable and copied shots in the league.
This has been the era in which international players have gained respect as championship-influencing stars, and Nowitzki is the face of that movement. Yao Ming is already in the Hall of Fame. Manu Ginóbili retired last year, and he will receive that honor in the future. A few other international stars nearing retirement figure to be there, too, including Pau Gasol and Tony Parker. But Nowitzki is the greatest of them all.
“They were the pioneers,” said Kim Bohuny, the NBA’s senior vice president of international basketball operations. “They came over earlier on when the popularity of the game globally was really just starting. They’ve had incredible storied careers. They’ve given back so much to not only the NBA but to their national teams.”
The NBA started Basketball Without Borders in 2001, and over the past 18 years, the league has become a major force in the development of international players. But Nowitzki and his international contemporaries predated those efforts. They were inspired by the 1992 Dream Team and the overseas talent that came before them. Now they’re the inspiration.
Bohuny can remember helping these players secure visas and become acclimated to American life. She was moved as she reflected on how much they have accomplished and how they have helped change the style and attitude of the NBA.
“I’m just proud to work with them, and I just thank them for what they’ve done,” she said. “And I know even after retirement they’re going to continue to give back to the game and help the game grow. It can’t get any better than that.”
The next wave is already starting to take over. It would be fitting if Nowitzki retires after the same season in which teammate Luka Doncic runs away with rookie of the year honors and Giannis Antetokounmpo engages in a compelling MVP race with James Harden. It feels like baton-passing time, but Doncic, the Greek Freak, Joel Embiid and the rest should respect how big of a lead Nowitzki has given them.
In 1998, the NBA was about to enter an ugly post-Jordan era. Two decades later, skill dominates the league again. There are many factors for this, but don’t underestimate Nowitzki’s contribution. He was the original unicorn. Kristaps Porzingis was basically in diapers when Nowitzki redefined the job requirement for the modern big man.
At times, it is difficult to watch Nowitzki hobble up and down the court. But there’s also something admirable about how much he loves the game and how much he loves the Mavericks, whom he has stayed loyal to for 21 seasons. Stardom doesn’t matter to him anymore. He seems content helping with the franchise’s rebuilding efforts, so content that he may opt to play Year 22 next season.
If he makes that decision, do not consider the current cheers worthless. Consider them merely a down payment on appreciating an all-time great. The applause can last a lot longer and still not do Nowitzki justice.